(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Not so long ago a very close aid worker friend of mine confided that she was contemplating leaving the aid industry. Her reason: too many of her friends had died in the line of duty. She didn’t want to have that happen again. Her number was higher than mine, but then even one is already too many.
A little less long ago some grad student found me – I’m not sure how, exactly – and asked if I’d participate in a study on PTSD among humanitarian workers. I agreed. Give the younger ones a break, I always say. It was an online survey and a telephone interview, total time commitment, about 90 minutes.
Obviously my analysis is not a clinical one. It’s based on casual inferences from the questions asked (the fact that I answered a moderate or high “yes” to almost everything), but it seems that I have nearly all of the symptoms, at least to some degree.
“…recurring dreams … trouble sleeping…”
Many aid workers have had experiences far more traumatic than anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never been abducted or violently assaulted, for example. But I’ve been around. And after twenty years, even those less violent, less immediately traumatic experiences take their cumulative toll. The near misses, the bomb blasts, the checkpoint stops that went sideways, the friends who deployed and never returned… they add up.
Like I said, it's not a clinical diagnosis by any stretch, but it was a moment of clarity, a moment of sober truth for me.
* * *
Over the last few years I’ve found myself answering more and more email from aspiring development and relief workers, high-school, college and university students hoping to enter the aid world one day. These days I find myself with greater frequency accepting invitations to sit in a cubicle or coffee shop or Skype window and dispense career advice to newly-minted aid workers.
I’m happy to do this. I think it’s important. No one gave me advice when I was starting out, really.
But I get the sense as I talk to them that they almost long for the trauma and cynicism, the angst, the horror. They sense that these things are what make them ‘real’ aid workers. They’ve failed to really comprehend the intended irony of 99% of what’s published on Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like.
And if I could be indulged to dispense one piece of advice it would simply be:
Be careful what you wish for. Don’t aspire to cynicism and trauma. Don’t worry – stick around long enough and those things will happen organically. (I personally believe that both are inevitable in those who really engage for long enough.) But for all of the joking and aggrandizing and bravado of the silverbacks, these are heavier burdens to carry than you think. This is not some proud, thing for us. For all of our tough talk, we're usually softer than we let on. Don't wish for the horror.